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BAPTISM OF FIRE by Paddy Gosch

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The season after Melbourne triumphantly broke its premiership drought ended with a thud as the Demons came to the ground with a disappointing straight sets exit from the 2022 finals series. There could have been no more soul destroying an end to a year after a glorious 17-game winning streak at the back end of the 2021 season which included the winning of the grand final in Perth and the first 10 games in 2022 than to miss not only the grand final but a preliminary as well.

The winning ride ended abruptly with three consecutive losses in mid-season and wins in only six of the last 14 games of the year. What was truly traumatic for Demon fans was to watch in dismay as their team was bundled out of premiership contention in straight sets at home to two interstate teams after finishing second on the ladder at the end of the home and away season. When the dust settled, the premiership defence had ended dismally as the Dees failed to back up their premiership season and missed the opportunity to achieve the promise of rewarding their fans with an opportunity to witness glory in person on the MCG.

The Demons haven’t brooded over lost opportunities — after all, they have plenty of motivation from their recent experience as they go into the 2023 season. And they have left no stone unturned as they build on their strengths for the challenge that lies ahead.

One of those strengths is undoubtedly the Demon midfield, which is arguably one of the finest in the competition. Led by captain Max Gawn, who is widely regarded as the premier ruckman in the game, the Demon midfield is deep and talented, with the likes of Clayton Oliver, Christian Petracca and Jack Viney all capable of dominating games.

Oliver, in particular, has established himself as one of the league’s preeminent midfielders, with his contested ball-winning ability and clearance work among the best in the competition. He has outstanding vision and decision making skills and always seems to know where his teammates are and gets the ball to them in the blink of an eye.

Norm Smith medallist Christian Petracca is one of the most exciting and dynamic players in the AFL and a key part of the Demons’ success in recent years. Petracca’s combination of speed, strength and skill causes headaches for oppositions midfields. He has an incredible ability to break tackles, burst through packs and find his way to goal and is equally comfortable setting up his teammates.

Highly skilled Vice Captain Jack Viney brings tenancity, grunt, work ethic and leadership to the table. He is a ferocious tackler and has a reputation for being one of the toughest players in the AFL. Yet, despite the physicality he brings to the game, he is an intelligent footballer with exceptional ball-handling and kicking skills.

Promising young midfielder Tom Sparrow has built his upper body over the summer and looks like the next player to break into this star studded midfield on a more regular basis. He  will most definitely attend a greater number of centre bounces this season.

Over the preseason trackwatchers have noted that Kozzy Pickett has been training for a dual role as a forward and a midfielder. His greatest strength is his speed and agility which make him an ideal candidate for more midfield minutes with his excellent ability to evade opposition and use his skill to break through defences and create scoring opportunities. If taking him into the middle can up his output by say, an extra half dozen disposals a game, it will be a bonus for the team and give opposition clubs a sizable headache in trying to contain him.

The Demons also have a plethora of second tier midfielders that can capably pinch hit in the centre throughout a game with James Harmes‘ ability to tag an opponent when needed or Angus Brayshaw leaving his defensive post as required to come back to the position in which he cut his teeth and once earned him third place in the Brownlow medal count. James Jordon can also be used in many games as a versatile sub under the new sub rule as he is capable of playing multiple roles across the field.

During the preseason defender Trent Rivers was trialled through the middle much to the delight of many Demon fans. Alex Neal-Bullen also attended a number of centre bounces and stoppages as the Demons attempted to add some depth, adaptability and flexibility to the midfield.

The midfield is complemented by the club’s outstanding ruck lineup. Premiership Captain and multiple All Australian, Max Gawn is a towering presence who has been the competition’s premier ruckman for more than half a decade. Dominating games in the air, Max has a versatility that allows him to play up forward or down back making him an essential component of the team’s game plan.

With the departure of Luke Jackson, Max is joined by his one-time rival Brodie Grundy who also has a couple of All Australian honours under his belt and the pair look set to form a formidable ruck combination which will stretch most teams. It is expected that they will likely share rucking duties 50/50, whilst one “rests” as an extra tall up forward allowing the ruckman to play a kick behind the ball in order to pick off any quick turnovers out of the forward line. Once an early draft pick, Josh Schache can also play ruck as well as fill in as a tall key position player if and when needed.

On the wings the Demon’s also have added another exciting piece to their midfield with the acquisition of Lachie Hunter from the Bulldogs. He joins winger Ed Langdon and they are expected to form a dynamic combination giving the Dees added speed, skill and endurance on both sides of the field. The former Bulldog is talented and versatile player with excellent disposal, decision making skills and vision under pressure, while Langdon, on the other hand, is a speedy and athletic player with incredible endurance. He has become one of the Demons’ most valuable players and can break lines and create scoring opportunities as well as his excellent defensive work and his limitless output.

Down back we can expect the Demons to have another strong defensive lineup for the upcoming season. In 2022, Melbourne had one of the best defences in the league, allowing only 71.7 points per game and conceding the fewest points overall in the competition for the second year in a row.

The backline is anchored by All-Australian fullback Steven May who is a key component to their stellar defence. May’s physicality, athleticism and tenacity contributes to his imposing presence where he can deftly use his size and strength to his advantage. He is an excellent one-on-one defender who can match up against some of the best forwards in the league limiting their impact on the game.

May’s partner in crime, Jake Lever, is widely regarded as one of the best intercept markers and rebounding defenders in the league. He is a leader on and off the field who has a keen football IQ and can position himself well to intercept an create turnovers in order to initiate counter attacks.

The last component of the three headed dragon in the Demon’s defence is Harry Petty. Petty is a versatile defender with a strong overhead mark and excellent foot skills who plays with composure under pressure. He too is an outstanding intercept marker generating scores from turnovers for his team.

These generals in defence are ably supported by the medium and small defenders. Christian Salem, whilst currently sidelined with a thyroid issue, exudes class with expert decision making and accurate kicking. His protégé, Jake Bowey, is also an excellent user of the footy and rookie Judd McVee has put his hand up for an early season berth playing with a maturity that belies his young age. You also cannot write off Michael Hibberd as he too can still provide service on some of the competition’s best small forwards. Angus Brayshaw will continue to rack up marks in defence providing a lot of rebound and Trent Rivers too will be an outlet out of defence with his run and booming kick.

The Demon’s forward line looks set to be rejuvenated from its beaten and battered form of 2022. It boasts a mix of experience, skill and youthful enthusiasm that if working in synergy with the midfield to make it a formidable force in the competition. 

Many pundits have earmarked the Demon's forward line as our biggest weakness highlighting the fact that the Demons were only able to score more than 100 points on 5 occasions in 2022 whereas eventual premiers Geelong were able to achieve that feat on 11 occasions.

Melbourne’s efficiency when going inside 50 has been problematic in the past. Last year the Demons ranked 3rd in the league for insides 50 but only ranked 6th in points scored. The conversion of inside 50s to scoring goals is an area that needs to improve in 2023.

The two towers of Ben Brown and Tom McDonald form the heart of the forward line and when fit are extremely valuable to the team’s successes. In an injury interrupted season last year the pair still managed 45 goals between them. In their premiership year the pair booted 58 goals. An injury free year is critical for the both of them. McDonald provides strength and a foil for Brown in packs and they both are very strong leads up the ground. They will be aided in the air up forward by the resting ruckmen in Max Gawn and Brodie Grundy.

Versatile mid-sized forward Bayley Fritsch has been the Demon’s top goal scorer for the past three seasons. He can play as a lead up forward, using his speed and agility to create space and take marks or as a small forward, using his ground-level skills to create scoring opportunities. The fact that he’s getting close to the competition’s leading goalkickers is testament to his value to the club.

Livewire Kozzy Pickett is one of the most dynamic small forwards in the competition who can be very damaging to oppositions using his speed, skill & agility to sometimes create something out of nothing. Joined by Charlie Spargo with his ability to accurately hit up targets in the forward 50 and Kade Chandler who has impressed in the preseason the Demon’s small forwards need to hit the scoreboard more often to make the side truly formidable to their opponents.

Demon fans are also anticipating the emergence of talented high draft pick Jacob Van Rooyen who is coming off a great first season in the VFL and by all reports a fantastic preseason on the training track but he may have to wait for his opportunity to arise as he continues to develop at Casey.

Whilst coach Simon Goodwin maintains that a strong defence will still be the thing that underpins the team’s game style, it would appear as if the Demons will be more aggressive in their ball movement with more kicks into the corridor and to the top of the goal square rather than going straight down the line along the boundaries. This more aggressive style of play has been showcased in the preseason matches and will hopefully have a big impact on scoring.

Season 2023 is shaping up to be an exciting season for the Demons and their fans. Most pundits are predicting that the Demons will be a Top 4 team this season and go deep into September. Based on their form in the practice matches it looks as if the Demon’s game plan won’t be as predictable as many critics claimed it became last season. Part of that predictability was related to an inability to run out and win games after holding reasonable leads early in many of their games in the latter part of the season. Several explanations have been put forward as to how the problem came about and how it could be resolved. The likely answer is that it was related to the club’s fitness regime and to player injuries. 

Luck with injuries plays a huge part in any teams success. Last season the Demon’s were banged up and tired as they virtually limped into finals. Injuries to star players, Petracca's hairline fracture of the tibia, Oliver’s thumb never truly recovered from the Cats game, Max Gawn had a painful hip injury and almost missed the Semi Final and Bayley Fritsch had a knee injury that required surgery in the off season. Whilst injuries should not be used as an excuse it can explain performances. It is evident that the Demons could have managed the loads of players better throughout the long season so hopefully there have been lessons learned from last year.

The early indications from the preseason and limited practice match evidence are that Melbourne will start 2023 both highly trained and full of fitness and energy for the season ahead. It is also abundantly clear that its best 23 is as good as any other team in the competition and they have the depth to go all the way. The Demons have a tough start to the season with games against the Bulldogs, Lions and Swans (all of who beat them at their last start). The test will therefore come early for them.

Even if they get through that baptism of fire, they need to remember that, the season is long and circumstances can turn things around very quickly. However, having been to the mountain top so very recently and then experienced a swift fall from grace at the bitter end of last season, they have the weapons and the experience to return to lofty heights again in 2023.


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